On Books and Writing with #LoveOzYA Author Catch Tilly
Catch Tilly is a former high school teacher now working as an author and script writer. It was after hearing students comment how realistic and empowering they found Morgan and Stormin’s story presented in a play on bullying that she decided to write Otherwise Known as Pig. She is married with five children and has an MA in creative writing.
What’s special about Australian stories? Why is it important that young adults read stories set in Australia?
I love being Australian. I love the laid-back attitude present in ‘She’ll be right, mate,’ and the fact the Australian Museum site has a page on drop-bears. And that sense of irreverent humour is unique to our heritage and our writing. Just as the appalling racism behind the old White Australia Policy and the new detentions on Manus Island are also part of being Australian. Our YA readers need to know this. To be given stories about their country.
When I first wrote Otherwise known as Pig one of my beta readers (adult) commented she ‘couldn’t believe the bullying until she pretended it was set in America’. This is despite the fact the book grew out of stories from Australian teens. We need Oz YA so that our next generation will recognise themselves and their culture. In an increasingly disturbed world, they need to know their story, so they have a place to stand.
Was there any particularly cool, interesting or eye-opening research you undertook when writing your most recent book? How did you go about it and what did you learn?
My most recent book, Otherwise known as Pig, tells the story of bullying, so yeah, I did a lot of research. I read books and articles, checked newspapers and talked to people. I wouldn’t describe the results as cool, but they were eye-opening. For a start, a five-minute google-search will uncover two to three serious bullying incidents in any six-month period. I did this in 2010, 2012 and 2018 and the results were frighteningly similar. Two articles (in 2012 and 2018) were identical apart from the number of punches to the head (20 in one and 17 in the other) and the location (Adelaide and Perth). This is not a problem that is going away.
And it’s universal. The most eye-opening facts were not the statistics that up to 1 in 3 children are bullied, or the fact that bullying is not a crime, it was the stories I heard when people knew what I was writing about. I heard about a broken arm (at primary school), regular beatings (at a rough country school), sexual assault (at a top private school) and more. Like the #metoo movement it seemed like everyone had a bullying story to tell.
That’s where the cool comes in. By writing about these issues, authors can open the gates and start a conversation. We can bring bullying, sexual assault, racism, homophobia and the other ills of the world out of the closet and into the light. And maybe, by 2030, there won’t be as many articles in the paper about teens being punched in the head.
Readers are increasingly vocal about reading stories featuring diverse characters. What responsibility do authors have to meet this expectation?
There’s a well-known argument against people who say: ‘I’m not queer/indigenous/disabled, so why should I read about them’ and the answer is ‘I’m not a hobbit but I read Lord of the Rings’. It’s a good argument and I would like to add the fact that Tolkien wasn’t a hobbit either. You see, I think one of the difficulties of diverse representation in literature is that writers are not a very diverse group. There are increasing numbers of indigenous, multi-racial and sexually diverse authors out there, but most writers are still white and middle-class.
This is where the difficult question comes in. Should those writers embrace a diversity that is outside their experience? I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman writing as a part Afghani, working-class teenage boy. Can I do that? What if I want to tell the story of growing up gay, or disabled or in foster care? Do I have the right? And if I don’t, am I condemning my stories to presenting the narrow, vanilla, untruthful portrayal of Australian society as solely white. Or if I am a member of a minority group does that have to be what my book is about? Do I have to be defined as a writer by an accident of birth?
I don’t think so. Writers must do their research, must step outside stereotype and into truth but I think we need to be free to tell any story. For true diversity I think we need to let writers follow their imaginations, to tell the story that burns in them regardless of whether it has grown out of their experience or not. I believe that though we are not hobbits we can still tell the story of a march to Mordor.
What inspired your love of reading? What could librarians, booksellers, teachers, parents and publishers be doing to reach the next generation of teen readers?
My Dad used to read to me at night. It was when we were reading ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome (an English book, I’m sorry) that I first started reading ahead during the day. After that there was no stopping me.
Librarians and booksellers: keep being awesome and directing kids towards books you think they will like. The ability to show a Harry Potter fan the hundreds of other magical fantasy novels is a librarian or bookseller’s super-power. Keep using it.
Teachers and parents: read to your kids when they are younger. And leave them free to read as they are teens. Whether it’s an audio book, or a comic, or a film -script. Let them read it anyway.
Publishers: Find the teen voices. (Something Margot, my editor at Wakefield Press, is fantastic at doing.) And continue to publish Australian stories. So, basically, keep doing what you are doing.
In YA books, should there be a balance between educational and entertaining?
I think that depends how you define educational. If it means ‘teaching facts or moral lessons’ then there shouldn’t be any balance at all, because if there is one group that won’t stand for being preached to, it’s YA. If educational means having meaning and depth, then yes. My latest book, Otherwise known as Pig looks at bullying, toxic masculinity, injustice and the difficulty of finding your story amongst the Hollywood memes we surround ourselves with. It also has a darkly funny narrator, absurd characters like Botox Girl and her Not Yet Ex-Boyfriend and is, I hope, entertaining. I certainly worked hard to make it so. When writing YA, entertaining and educational isn’t a balance, it’s a commitment.
What inspired you to become a writer/what inspired your latest book?
Otherwise known as Pig was inspired by a high school workshop on bullying. It was based around a short play I wrote and as it was drama, I deliberately chose the most extreme examples to demonstrate. I expected questions like “does this really happen” and had done my research to make sure I could answer truthfully. I didn’t expect students to write on feedback forms that this was “just like the playground” and “captured the real-life bullying atmosphere”. When they added that hearing these stories had made them feel stronger, I knew I had to write Pig.
What are your top 5 favourite OzYA books – how did you come to them and why do you love them?
Checkers by John Marsden: I read it 20 years ago, but it stuck with me. Not sure why but it’s my favourite John Marsden book and I think (though the reviews have disagreed) one of his most powerful.
Double Exposure by Brian Casswell: Wow. This one is amazing. The descriptions of Chris’s pictures blew my mind. I named the art teacher in Otherwise known as Pig after the main character in this book as my own tribute to Casswell’s writing.
One whole and perfect day by Judith Clarke: I love happy endings. In fact, I won’t read a book unless I’ve checked there is going to be a happy ending (and no it doesn’t ruin the story for me, once I know where it’s going, I can relax and enjoy the book). Clarke writes very different novels but in this one everyone gets a happy ending. Yet it’s not oversweet at all but has an earthy realism to balance the magical co-incidences.
Don’t call me Ishmael by Michael Bauer: When I was writing Otherwise known as Pig, I read a lot of bullying books and this one was easily the best. I enjoyed it so much more than books like Dairy of a Wimpy Kid. I loved Ishmael’s character, his voice and his friends. Then I read the whole series and it just kept getting better.
Mallee boys by Charlie Archbold: I’ve read so many good Oz YA books in the last year it was hard to choose. I picked Mallee boys because I love Sandy’s voice. It’s so real, so teenage. The books treats serious issues but it floats through your head with a country ease, like a river.
Who are your favourite OzYA characters and why?
This was interesting because when I thought about it, they weren’t the same as my favourite books. Gave me a chance to mention five more awesome OzYA authors.
Faith in The Summer in Between by Eleanor Spence: Faith is 12 or 13 and in the course of the book she discovers she’s a playwright. She’s the first writer I can remember reading in a book. Perhaps it was the fact she didn’t write a journal (I have never been able to journal as myself but only as imaginary people) but Faith stayed in my imagination for over 30 years.
Alan in I can Jump Puddles by Alan Marshall: The way Alan is determined to have a normal boy’s life, despite his polio. I read this book when I was a teen and twenty years later when my daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy Alan’s was the example I followed. She loves horses too but it’s because of Alan that I let her gallop around the paddock and stand up on a cantering horse.
Badge in Nan Chauncey book The Roaring 40’s. I read this book 40 years ago, in fact I can’t swear it was this book or one of the other ones by Nan Chauncy that I am thinking of. What I remember is a boy who was at home in the bush, who was wiry and tough and fit as a wild animal. I wanted to be that boy.
May in Making Friends with Alice Dyson by Poppy Nwosu: I loved Alice and Teddy, but May stole my heart. She was so needy and brave, and I loved the way she came back to being Alice’s real friend. So often people are divided into true friends and social climbers and I really appreciated the way May managed to be both.
Joel in Sailmaker by Rosanne Hawke: This is the best description of ADHD I have ever read. Joel is impulsive, brave and basically kind with ‘seagull eyes’ that are never still. I have family members with ADHD and Joel gives me a handle to understand them.
What advice would you give to the next generation of young writers?
I’m a writer, talking to other writers, so I’ll start with two quotes.
‘You know, kids, I wish every Mom and Dad would make a speech to their teenagers and say: Kids be free, be whatever you are, do whatever you want to do, just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.’ From the song ‘My conviction’ in the musical Hair.
‘No.’ She closes the pad again. ‘It’s just well-drawn. I happen to believe art needs a redemptive quality to be good.’ – Mrs Eveson in Otherwise known as Pig
I would tell them to write what’s in their hearts and on their minds, to write out of their experience and their imagination. To tell the truth and speak without fear (especially in a first draft), but also to offer hope. That’s the advice I would give this next generation of writers: Be yourself, trust yourself, and look for the light in the dark.